A customary reflection on Watford’s mixed-bag season


At the end of every season it’s customary to take a moment to pause and reflect on the season just gone.

In a sport where records, past statistics and history are of such massive relevance, reflecting on the newest addition to our team’s history is done often and extensively by many, and with varying results.

In Watford’s case, whereas last season, with its last minute winning goals and gut-wrenching drama, was a season that most could get behind, this season has proven far more difficult for us to maintain a united front as fans.

Last season had clearly defined periods of success and failure, but the current campaign has seemed to dip in and out like a toddler testing to see if the sea is too cold, never quite sure whether to tip over into a full blown promotion push or wallow comfortably outside of the play-offs and all of the associated heartbreak that’s possible within. This indecision and inconsistency has led me to change my views and ideas on our progress and relative success almost on a weekly basis.

Upon seeing players of the quality of Gabrielle Angella, Daniel Tozser and Albert Riera take the field emblazoned with the was-red-now-yellow moose/hart on their breasts, I feel pride, whereas every goal these men in yellow concede in the last 10 minutes of a match causes me to reconsider even watching 11 guys kick a ball around on a Saturday afternoon.

But for every McGugan corner that fails to clear the defender at the near post, there have been moments like the reception for Almen Abdi upon his return from injury, Troy Deeney’s long overdue Bournemouth hat-trick, and going 2-0 up at the Etihad (regrettably I wasn’t there, rather cheering St Albans on to putting 5 goals past a certain Jack Bonham and his Arlesey Town side).

At the start of the season many of those so-called ‘football experts’ claimed that our Wembley disappointment could cause a hangover that may see us struggle this season. While many of us scoffed, buoyed by having signed the loanees despite a transfer embargo, I can’t really argue that this season has shown many of the hallmarks of a hangover.

I’ve had many hangovers in my time and feel that I’d be qualified to say that the feeling after the home matches against Yeovil and Sheffield Wednesday felt not unlike the feeling the day after dragging yourself in at 5 in the morning, ears ringing and coat smelling strongly of tobacco. But if Zola’s last act was one resembling a thundering hangover then Sannino’s first act has been the strong coffee and alka seltzer we desperately needed.

The follicly challenged Italian has certainly helped steady a sinking ship, and has led to unbeaten run upon unbeaten run, but I can’t help but feel that his greatest accomplishment could be just round the corner.

Whereas a wasteful pre-season and the weight of expectation set us up for a fall from the beginning last season, Sannino will whip this squad, and whatever additions arrive over the Summer, into shape. Newly unburdened by that expectation, and probably back to being relegation hot favourites with most of the bookies, we have a blank canvas for next season.

With a shiny new East Stand glimmering in the background I look forward to the back end of the summer, sitting on my red plastic chair, and cheering on those same moose/hart emblazoned shirts, while also periodically shouting expletives at the referee.

Sannino could be the tonic but Zola’s departure leaves a sour taste

When Gianfranco Zola was first appointed as Watford manager I remember exactly where I was, walking through thick sunshine towards Torre Abgar in Barcelona in July, a city whose footballing philosophy my team would adopt, unbeknownst to me, in the months immediately following.

Unlike his eventual successor, Zola was a man most of us already knew plenty about. Whether it was his back-heeled goal versus Norwich in the FA Cup, or simply the sight of this shaggy-haired Italian bustling through opposition defences, his playing career had been iconic, however his brief foray into management slightly less so. It didn’t come as a surprise that several months later we would be cooing over passing, fluid football the likes of which we’d never seen at the Vic before.

Fast-forward 18 months and that shaggy-haired (although slightly less so given the 20 years and two stressful management positions since) Italian has now departed. The euphoric highs, at times, of last season, unfortunately replaced with a heavy, foreboding expectation that Watford, and Zola, have found it very hard to live with or to live to up to this season. Despite some of the greatest football and the most exciting players to have graced south-west Hertfordshire in decades, the oh-so-close of last season gave way to frustration and impotence this time round, mistakes at the back and hesitancy to the point of inaction up front has seen Watford slump to 5 successive home defeats, and zero wins in 9. In face of growing criticism from the stands and rumoured in-fighting amongst his players, Zola professed that he no longer knew how to fix this and fell on his sword in order to make way for someone who did.

That supposed someone is Guiseppe Sannino, a 57-year-old Italian most recently notable for his part in the bizarre managerial merry-go-round at Palermo that saw him hired, sacked and then re-hired in the same season that also saw Gian Gasperini (of Internazionale fame) and Alberto Malenseni handed the role of manager. Sannino, on paper at least, seems to be the tonic for all of the Hornets’ ailments, a tactically astute coach who promotes fitness, hard work and togetherness in his players.

Yet no matter the height of excitement at this next chapter, a sour taste still clings to the walls of my mouth regarding Zola’s downfall. In my position, perched for much of each match on the edge of the seat that belonged to my father before me in the upper Rous stand, for the past five home matches the naysayers have become louder. Few people could argue that sat at your desk, it’s far easier to work in a positive environment, without your colleagues haranguing you or booing when you accidentally load the printer with the wrong paper. Yet it seems that many Watford fans are of the opinion that despite the negative boos and abuse levelled at the players from almost every side of our ground, that these players should be able to win games regardless and that it’s their right to be sounding their dissatisfaction even if it’s entirely counteractive.

This led in the past few home matches to a toxic atmosphere within Vicarage Road, and one that we as fans have a duty to dispel as soon as possible. While it is totally acceptable to sound your dissatisfaction, it is not productive and many need to recognise our own contribution towards the team’s fortunes on the pitch from the stands.

I also remember where I was when Guiseppe Sannino was appointed Watford coach, sat at my desk in Barnet, drinking tea on a bitter December morning. I like to think that the contrast between this and that summer afternoon in Barcelona is similar to the contrast between the two men. Zola was indulgent, sunny and warm, Sannino is cold, clinical and hard, perhaps the perfect tonic to our current ailments.

Grading the new-look Watford squad 11 games in (part two)

Ikechi Anya

It’s so often said amongst Watford supporters that it’s become something of a club cliché, but it’s certainly true that no Watford player has improved as much as Anya has since joining the club.

From a lightweight footballer with only his pace as a redeeming feature has sprung a truly dangerous wingback, in the space of just over a season. Kechi’s ability to turn defenders inside out and consistently skin them down the outside has led him to become one of our most regularly lauded players by opposition fans, and has seen him called up to the Scotland squad, much to chagrin of some knuckle-dragging Scots fans questioning his Scottish credentials.

On top of all this, and in the age of twitter and increased access to footballers, Ikechi comes across as genuinely likeable and humble, to see a man so devoted to football and magnanimous in his achievements therein is refreshing and it’s great that he’s playing for our club.

A

Sean Murray

There was a game towards the latter end of last season where Watford where Sean was due to come on as a substitute around the 70th minute but Zola had changed his mind having seen something different happen on the pitch and sent him back to the dugout, Murray responded by throwing his shirt on the floor and huffing and puffing back on the bench. Fast forward 6 months and we have a very different Sean Murray on our hands, the talent that seemed to have been drowned in cheap sugary alcopops in cheap sugary nightclubs (allegedly) around Hertfordshire had returned squinting painfully into sun and wondering what had happened to it last season.

Sean underwent a pre-preseason training camp to get fit and has subsequently forced his way into the team, emerging from his drunken cocoon as an energetic, hardworking and creating midfielder. Having flown close the sun last season, Sean appears to have seen sense and has added application and hard work to his already obvious natural ability, seemingly keen to avoid wasting his talent and falling down the leagues.

A more improved player over last season you’d be hard pushed to find and, should his upward curve continue in the same direction it is currently, by the end of the season we could just have the Sean Murray back who wowed us in 2011/12.

A

Lewis McGugan

Probably one of Zola’s biggest transfer coups from pre-season, McGugan made the decision to swap the red of Nottingham Forest for the yellow of Watford and arrived at London Colney with mixed reviews from his former fans. Accused of laziness and drifting in and out of games, the undoubtedly relaxed McGugan soon showed both class that saw him highly rated at the City Ground and the lackadaisical tendencies that saw him equally maligned.

When his former club visited Vicarage Road in August Lewis was taunted for leaving, Forest fans claiming he ‘should’ve stayed at a big club’, his comeback was a 30-yard free kick into Darlow’s top corner, the first goal Forest conceded this season, and a muted celebration showing that he had the sense to be respectful even if (some of) his former fan base weren’t.

With Abdi out of the side of late, McGugan has cemented his place in the midfield and at set pieces, with Abdi back he will face real competition for his place and we will look for a marked improvement on the weaknesses still carried forward.

B+

Iriney

With the departure of Jonathan Hogg in the close season to be closer to his family, Watford were left very much in need of someone to come and do ‘the dirty work’. For every Diego Fabbrini flip-flapping his way through defences, there comes the need for an enforcer to win balls and break up play, so when Zola’s newest defensive midfield recruit was announced a Brazilian with a singular name you could have been forgiven for thinking that Hogg’s trademark northern grit may have become extremely lacking.

However, despite the flair nature of his country of birth, Iriney shares more in common with Roy Keane than he does Neymar, unafraid of seemingly anyone on a football field, the midfielder has already set about stamping his name on the Championship. While his approach can, at times, veer slightly too far onto the heavy handed side of things, the ex-Granada man takes on the departed Hogg’s role and improves upon it, his completed pass rate exemplary coming into the second international break.

B+

Cristian Battocchio

It’s a testament to his potential that, when Watford were sent our second influx of Udinese loanees in August last year, that many dissenting voices from the Udine lamented the loss of Battocchio over that of Forestieri or Ekstrand. Coming over as a highly-rated young player he found first team opportunities limited until midway through the season when his industrious, hard-working midfield play earned him a well-deserved place in the middle of the pitch.

This season, with introduction of McGugan and Iriney, and the resurgence of Sean Murray, Battocchio has again found first team opportunities slightly limited, and has had to play most of his Championship football this season off the bench.

Much like last season, his close control and work ethic are exemplary, but in an increasingly physical midfield the diminutive Italian has found himself bossed off balls far too often. That said, goals against Wigan and against Bournemouth in the cup will have endeared him to his manager and fans not only for their importance but also a calmness belying his young age. Still a rough diamond, Battocchio signed for 3 years in the summer and will look to strengthen and push on this season.

B-

Almen Abdi

It’s often a better measure of a great player that he’s more conspicuous in his absence from the team than when he’s playing, and in Almen Abdi we have a player we really miss when he’s not there. The quiet, unassuming ‘professor’, Abdi has been the unsung metronome to our passing game ever since early last season. Pulling strings (and defenders) from the midfield, most of our slick, attacking play tends to go through the Swiss midfielder and during his absence with a foot injury we have, at times, seemed flat and uninspired. That we’ve won several games without the former Udinese man while looking like this is encouraging for his return.

Sick note

Fernando Forestieri

There are many words you can use to describe Fernando, brilliant, enthralling, infuriating, intricate, adolescent, but above all since his arrival here he’s been committed. The first to sign permanently with the Hornets, and certainly the first to declare his love for everything from Ikea to the Harlequin, Forestieri quickly became a fan favourite.

His form last season ranged from frustrating to sublime, but through Zola’s tutelage, like many from abroad this season and last, he has come on leaps and bounds. Where once his propensity was to pirouette to the ground, he will now ride knee high challenges and push himself and the team toward the opposition’s half. Tracking back from attack to defence he now hassles breaking opposition off the ball instead of lunging in. Despite the protestations of Huddersfield fans last Saturday, Forestieri has changed from last season from the precocious rough talent with a tendency to fall to the floor, to a cut above regular Championship frontmen.

A

Troy Deeney

Few will probably ever forget Deeney’s contribution last term, from starting the season in prison to scoring easily one of the most memorable goals in recent years at Vicarage Road, he finished a transformative season with 20 goals and positively evolved attitude. In fact, had it not been for a flurry of goals for Matej Vydra mid-season, Deeney could have been the striker on the receiving end of admiring glances from the Premier League after our failure to go up.

However, Deeney would have to wait until after a couple of impressive performances early on this season for that Premier League interest, and unlike his Czech strike partner from last season, Deeney proved loyal and appreciative to the fans who had encouraged him last term. Since then his form has wavered, the ever-confident figurehead seemingly hit by a crisis of confidence as he tries to rekindle his form from earlier this year.

B

Diego Fabbrini

When it comes to players with big reputations, none came to Watford last summer with bigger than Diego Fabbrini. A full Italy cap under his belt against England last season and a reputation as one to watch in Serie A last season meant that his arrival at Vicarage Road was noteworthy far beyond just Hertfordshire. Yet despite his obvious talent, Fabbrini has been slow to adapt to the English game, only showing glimpses of his talent against teams that allow him to.

Being of surprisingly slender build, the sleight Italian has found it difficult against the brutish centre backs of the Championship. However, when he stays upright, Fabbrini has the ability in droves to cause defences untold problems. When Fernando Forestieri first joined this division, he too had trouble staying on his feet, infuriating not only opposition supporters but his own as well, and I have no doubt that, given time, Fabbrini will excel at this level, and perhaps beyond.

B

Javier Acuna

The tumultuous ‘will he? won’t he?’ that was pre-season with Matej Vydra as Watford gradually gave way to the realisation that we needed a replacement, that Matej has grandiose aspirations far exceeding our Championship status. The replacement shoehorned into Matej’s bright blue and pink boots was to be Javier Acuna, a low-key Paraguayan plying his trade at Girona on loan from Real Madrid’s second string.

While he is clearly not Matej Vydra, Acuna brings with him something else, where Matej would disappear from matches, Javier will chase them down and make his mark. Instead of a replacement we a different option, a rugged bulldog of an attacker, yet one who is yet to firmly establish what he offers the team. No doubt his acclimatisation to the league will bring with it a place for him in our starting set up, but for Acuna we’ll need to be patient.

B-

Grading the new-look Watford squad 11 games in (part one)

It’s a well-known football cliché that you can’t judge your team’s season until you’re at least 10 games in. That those initial matches up until the 10 game point are but frivolous dalliances compared to those games that follow into the hardy English winter and beyond is a statement often proffered by hapless managers having spent big over the summer on under-performing superstars.

However, there could be some truth to the cliché, two intense spurts of matches in between international breaks this season has provided an opportunity for teams to establish first elevens and to test their squads against the much-maligned Tuesday to Saturday fixture pattern.

For Watford it’s been a period of both consolidation and a chance to improve upon our poor start last season. It’s been written and commented on many times, but many will agree that our slow start to last season massively affected our eventual promotion push and, as such, a positive improvement on that this season was always bound to be a top priority for Zola and the Pozzos.

In homage to secondary school teachers all over Hertfordshire, I’ll attempt to grade our new-look squad 11 games in, assessing what must be classified as a ‘good’ start and seeing where our increasingly cosmopolitan team can go from here, beginning with the goalkeeper and defence.

Manuel Almunia

The only man, Lloyd Doyley aside, to really show up in the heat at Wembley back in May, Manuel has taken his penalty-saving, commanding form into the new season. A slight fumble in the wet against Doncaster aside, the former Arsenal man has been a reliable ever-present in the first 11 league games this season and has proven invaluable as the newly acquainted defence in front of him have taken time to cement.

Manuel’s signing this summer onto a further one-year contract, turning down the opportunity to play for Valencia in the process, may have proven, quietly to be one of the most important of the pre-season.

A

Gabriele Angella

Nobody personifies our club’s newly found continental ostentation than the towering, debonair Italian.

Angella has quickly confirmed himself as a fan favourite, a solid, intelligent centre back capable of winning more than his fair share of balls in the air and playing his way out of defence on the ground, transitioning play from defence to attach with a unique Tuscan swagger.

One of our niggling foibles last season was that our strength on the break and going forward in general wasn’t matched by our often panicked, threadbare defence. With Angella’s arrival from Udinese over the summer Zola now has a peg to hang his defence on, a counterpoint for defending set pieces as well a ball player coming forward, very few of the new arrivals for this season or last have had the effect that Gabriele has had since he got here, and at only 24 with 5 years remaining on his contract, he can only get better.

A+

Lloyd Doyley

Lloyd Doyley, full international. Did anyone ever truly believe they’d ever hear those words? ‘Mr Watford’ needs no introduction, and the consistent adaptability that has seen him ride out several managerial storms means that his review for the first section of this season is no different to that of last season, or the season before, or the season before that.

While Lloyd is never going to set the footballing world alight with a rabona assist or a mazy run from midfield and a lob over the keeper, he is ever-dependant, and a better man marker in this division you would be hard pressed to find. Sure he never really looks like he knows what he’s doing over the halfway line, but then he never did, and maybe he doesn’t need to.

Lloyd Doyley is Watford, and his familiar place in this unfamiliar team brings reassurance that we will never lose the essence of our club.

B+

Davide Faraoni

Reportedly signed from Inter Milan to Udinese for €6 million, Faraoni came as part of trio of Italians signalling the Pozzos intent at Watford. Faraoni’s talent, as with a large proportion of this squad, is clear to see and for the wily Udinese owners to have shelled out such a princely sum on him so young shows that he clearly is held in high regard. Yet his development so far in the team has been slightly stunted, for every screamer or clever late run into the box there is a bizarre back heel into the area, and it would seem that perhaps Davide, like many before him, is struggling slightly to adapt to the rough and tumble, and pace of the English Championship.

That said, on occasion he has been seemed classy, assured and threatening down that right flank. A mixed opening 11 games, but certainly more to come.

B

Joel Ekstrand

One of the ‘old guard’ defensively from last season, Joel became a stalwart of Zola’s defence into the second half of last season and his no-nonsense style at the back gave fans a flavour of what was achievable with a cohesive, together defence.

Starting the season, Ekstrand, who has always looked a little like he was made of glass, suffered from injury and experienced a slow return into the first team. A battling, all action defender Ekstrand complements the smooth class of Angella with a gritty hard work ethic. While coming forward, much like his Florentine counterpart, Joel is capable of skilfully transitioning play up the pitch and also has a thunderbolt of a shot in his locker as well.

Surely, when fit, a near certainty for selection, Ekstrand’s only really obstacle this season could be his fitness.

B

Daniel Pudil

What is it with Watford left-backs? In the vein of Paul Robinson and Carl Dickinson, our current specialist left-back has continued the trend towards hard hitting, no nonsense full backs. Danny joined us in the first wave of Udinese/Granada loanees way back in July last year, alongside Anya, Vydra and Beleck, most fans were keen to see a quality alternative for the limited but passionate Dickinson.

In terms of aggression and enthusiasm Pudil is unequalled in this squad, but amongst such technically gifted players as we’re lucky to have here, he is often exposed in his relative limitations. However, at Championship level, and amongst some of the bruisers in this league, Danny does a fine job and functions well as part of the rotation system amongst the full backs. Additionally in the first 11 games this season, Danny has now offered up 2 goals, already doubling his tally from last season.

B-

Essaid Belkalem

Belkalem’s arrival was a strange one for Watford fans, having become accustomed to unknown quantities arriving at our door and having to learn how to pronounce their names and learn their individual strengths and weaknesses, we suddenly found ourselves with a man who arrived here with a reputation. And a reputation far exceeding that which are used to at Vicarage Road.

A full Algerian international, rumour had it that, through Udinese/Granada, we had beaten many top European sides (including Champions League finalists Borussia Dortmund) to his signing meant that many of us expected great things of the towering African immediately. However the weight of expectation from an increasingly capricious home crowd ultimately left many disappointed initially after a patchy home league debut to Charlton saw Belkalem give away an unnecessary penalty and give a less-than-convincing performance.

Despite that, subsequent appearances in the cup and from the bench have shown a player continuing to adapt to English football, undoubtedly rather different from the Algerian league he came from, and given time and opportunity over the gruelling winter to come by spring we could see a dramatically different player.

C+

Marco Cassetti

If the grading system I’ve employed were merely for impeccable facial hair and rugged good looks, Marco would storm the field, and it is surely no coincidence that, since his arrival via Udinese at the beginning of last season, attendances have shot up. However, in contrast to his time at Roma, where he was employed as a full back, and the start of last season, where he was employed as a wing back, Marco has found himself a remnant of our panicked experimentation in lieu of a proper centre back last season.

While the class and wealth of footballing experience is still undoubtedly present, Marco has suffered several lapses in concentration and a few tragically misplaced passes out of the back three so far this term, leading many to champion a move back out to the wing back position that saw us take advantage of his pinpoint delivery in from the flanks.

C+

Look out for part two coming early next week!

Jim White and a summer (recruiting from) abroad

Watford’s transfer window – a combination of the newly familiar and the welcomingly unknown.

With the transfer window having snapped shut and with Jim White resigned to storing up his maniacal hyperbole for an all-out assault on the final day of January next year, the international break offers a chance for the dust to settle and for fans to assess the squads that will take with them through the first portion of the fledgling 2013/14 season.

While these frantic deadline days often prove overwhelmingly exciting for teams at the peak of the Premier League, historically the end of August and the end of January has been a far more nerve racking prospect for all languishing below them. Once the big money posturing of pre-season has ended, Premier League clubs have often turned admiring glances towards the league directly below them, desperate for that bargain to fill the gap in their squad they were unable to plug from abroad.

Many have suggested that the concept of allowing transfers long after the season has begun is unfair on those who lose important squad members after having prepared long and hard in pre-season, but the sad reality is that, while Sky still have such a huge influence on football, they are unlikely to relinquish such a fantastic opportunity for bombasticism.

For Watford, our transfer window has been a blend of both the newly familiar and the welcomingly unknown. With the much lauded (and misinterpreted) Pozzo player-pool, our transfer policy has become something of a cliché; the national press as well as envious fans of our contemporaries noting the large scale recruitment from only two teams in Italy and Spain. After the large batch loans of last season, fans were pleased to have finally been given players of our own this pre-season, both those we grew to love last season as well as exotic, thrilling new additions.

The additions of Almen Abdi, Joel Ekstrand, Christian Battocchio and Marco Cassetti from Udinese and Ikechi Anya and Daniel Pudil from Granada have kept a strong thread through from the dizzying heights of last season while also providing a retaliatory jibe to those green eyed onlookers from elsewhere in the Championship who doubted our ability to compete this season. Purely to have the continuity through from last season would have always been important but to have acquired so many of our squad from last season, often on long deals, was a statement of intent.

Our continuing recruitment from our Italian and Spanish brothers went beyond that, Gabrielle Angella , Diego Fabbrini and Davide Faraoni were persuaded to flee Italy for English shores and bring their exotic, continental talents to Vicarage Road. Javier Acuna made a slightly more convoluted journey to us from Madrid with a short stay at Udine before arriving alongside ex-Granada, Brazilian enforcer Iriney in WD18. This additional talent brought with it full International caps, multi-million pound valuations and experience playing against the likes of Messi and Ronaldo.

However our recruitment wasn’t limited to Andalucía and Friuli, Lewis McGugan was persuaded to leave Nottingham, his home for 7 years, to join Gianfranco’s men as well as promising youngsters Uche Ikpeazu and Reece Brown from Reading and Manchester respectively. Just to ensure our loan quota wasn’t entirely empty, Granada chose to allow us to borrow Essaïd Belkalem, a hulking Algerian international centre back, a surprising signing not only due to his international pedigree and high regard in European football but also because most fans expected him to arrive from Udinese.

However, all of this recruitment, often dramatic and en masse, seems have heightened our disappointment when things don’t quite go our way. Whereas in previous seasons we would have been delighted to have kept hold of the likes of Troy Deeney or Jonathan Bond, both of whom attracted rumoured interest from the division above, we were now bemoaning the loss of transfer targets such as Nick Powell or Tom Carroll to our rivals.

It’s not uncommon for famously capricious football fans to change their tune at the flick of a switch, but for a club as we were, selling to survive and accustomed to losing the gems in our crown whenever suitors came knocking, to feel disappointed at missing out on a couple of targets seems unappreciative of the fantastic business we made earlier in the summer and echoes the petulance of the ‘big clubs’ we are proud to be apart from.

It’s an odd feeling for a fan of a club having had a quiet Transfer Deadline Day, the ridiculous amplification of expectation piled upon fans for their club to sign big and at the last minute means that when they don’t there is a sense of having missed the party. But it’s important to remember that a squad isn’t assembled on one day, and that even the best players are only one cog in a much larger machine.

Personally I hate Transfer Deadline Days, to me it’s an unnecessary sideshow to the game that I love. The incredible squad assembled here over the past months is more than enough to perform on the pitch and hopefully enough to achieve what we came so close to achieving last season. This wealth of flair, power and guile should also serve to eclipse both the disappointment of last season and any disappointment felt by our recruitment this summer. Matej who?